Jeffrey Tambor, Coming Out, and “The Most Important Time To Be An Artist”
On live TV, Jeffrey Tambor used the platform of his Emmy acceptance speech to urge producers, casting agents, and directors all throughout the entertainment industry to hire trans actors and hear their stories, concluding with “I would not be unhappy, were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television.” I wasn’t there to watch it, but I was moved just hearing what had happened. Not necessarily because he said it because, well, anyone could have said it. And if you asked for my opinion on Tambor playing Maura Pfefferman on Transparent a year ago, I would’ve spouted the same canned “cis men shouldn’t play trans women” piece every other trans woman on the internet was recycling, and for good reason. But now is different. This time, I couldn’t hold an objective, detached opinion on the matter because I knew he meant it. I knew because he told me.
But of course, as soon as the acceptance speech hit, trans-Twitter was alight with the usual chatter: he’s part of the problem; he’s profiting off our stories; he has no right to even be up there, let alone speak for us. I’m not here to say these people are wrong for thinking these things, because in many cases they aren’t, even though many express it in a manner that’s less constructive and more reactionary. But when I hear some of these same people claim “he doesn’t really care”, or bring up his borderline transphobic scenes in Arrested Development season 4 as “proof” that he himself is actually transphobic, my heart goes into knots. I know that this, of all things, isn’t true. I know because he told me.
So let’s forget all the discourse for a second. This won’t be a piece about whether Transparent is a good show, or whether it’s okay for cis men to play trans women, or if Jill Soloway can still create a problematic show despite hiring more trans actors and crew than any show on television or streaming. These are all topics better suited for other, more knowledgeable writers than I. Instead, let’s time travel back to March of 2016, just half a year ago.
At this point in time, I’m 21 years old, still living with my parents, and still in the closet from most of my friends and family. Only my sisters and some close friends know that I’m a trans woman. Despite having not undergone hormone replacement therapy, I’m able to pass when I wear the right clothes, make-up, wig, etc.; so I’ve made it a habit to hang out with friends as a girl by driving to a secluded spot, changing in my car, going out, having a good time, driving back home, stopping at my spot to change back into “boy-mode”, and then heading back home to my parents as their uncorrupted, normal son. This is admittedly better than what many trans women get, but the times I get to go out and express myself fully are rare, and each night out is an ordeal of nerves and tension and being found out or spotted by the wrong person. For as freeing as it can be, it can also worsen my dysphoria at times.
While I was eager for more days to spend in girl-mode, I still couldn’t tell you exactly what it was that appealed to me in hearing about the Los Angeles LGBT Center hosting a “Trans Actors Workshop” hosted by Tambor himself. While I had an interest in film, I was far from an actor, and typically shy and reserved in social spaces. But, then again, I was shy and reserved as a “boy”. Perhaps the idea of going as Carol and expressing a side of myself I’m not typically able to express on a stage was the main appeal. That or it could’ve just been the Arrested Development fan in me wanting to spend three weekends with George Bluth Sr. There was always that. It also helped that the class was completely free, so long as you were a “Trans Lounge” member. At the very least, my parents wouldn’t find any suspicious purchases on my credit card bill.
Whatever the reason, I went. Upon arriving, I recognized some men and women from the support group meetings I used to go to before I got my job. Most of them, however, were fresh faces. We all waited in a small theater in The Village at Ed Gould Plaza. People were catching up with each other, introducing themselves, small-talk, checking their phones. Nobody knew what to expect from this thing. I sat there a little unsure of myself. While I was typically a fan of Tambor as an actor, I was one of the many trans women who had, er, problems with Transparent. Many of the men and women who were with me, on the other hand, were immense fans. Here I had the idea that only cis people enjoyed that show (and it is undeniably built with a cis gaze), but talking with all these trans men and women who were more moved by it than me and came to meet one of their role models certainly proved me otherwise.
As Gina Bigham, head of the Trans Lounge hosting the event, introduces the course to us, Mr. Tambor walks into the room and sits with the audience. There was no confetti or applause, at least not until he was properly introduced. He just sat there with us, sipping his coffee cup nonchalantly, listening to the woman on stage introduce him. Whatever aura of importance one would project onto him, he quickly deflates it with the casual comfort with which he joins us.
Then he begins. He warns us he’s not here to teach us how to get cast or get an agent or become famous. He just wants to teach us how to act well. Okay. Sounds good. He also ensures us that this is a Safe Space. Any personal information that’s shared in this room stays in this room. Alright. He then reminds us that he is not going to be the expert on trans politics and representation because he is, in fact, a cisgender male. “Although, the night is still young,” he jokes. Everyone gets a good chuckle.
He calls on the first actress to perform her prepared monologue. And god damn. She’s good. So good, so heartwrenchingly good. I’m frozen stiff by how good she is. When she finishes, Tambor definitely agrees that she’s “good”. So it comes as a natural surprise to the room when he gives his first bit of advice: “Now do it bad.”
Part of me expected this. I’d read up on Tambor’s other Acting Workshops he hosted at SXSW, and this same bit of “Now do it bad” has come up multiple times. But the rest of the room, including the girl onstage, didn’t expect this. “What do you mean?” she asks, confounded. He explains to her, “Overact. Yell and scream. You know. ‘Bad.’” And that’s what she does. She yells and screams. She overenunciates words. She devolves into histrionics. “Now set up the chairs,” he tells her. She shouts out her monologue while carrying chairs across the room. “Now sing it.” She sings her monologue, not missing a beat, still setting up chairs while doing so. The demands keep piling on. He’s pulling this woman through a hurricane and we’re all witness to it.
Finally, he tells her to stop and just… say it. “Just say the rest of your monologue.” She does. I don’t remember the exact words of what came afterwards; my head was spinning and my heart was racing, so I wasn’t taking any notes. But I remember after she finished, he said something along the lines of “…Perfect.”
It took me a while to get what he was doing. Hell, I’m still not 100% sure exactly what it was. My interpretation: we watched this woman, who clearly already had a talent of performing, shed off all the pretense and “performativity” of her acting, and then made it “real”. Not “truthful”, mind you. Jeffrey’s eyes don’t roll harder than when you utter the word “truth” with regards to acting. But he made it not feel like acting at all. “In real life, people overact,” is something I remember him saying. What’s more important is not letting the performance take over, and instead just being. People will accept the flaws so long as those flaws are real and recognizable. He would later say on the third week, “If you’re authentic, you can’t be wrong.”
We all applauded her and let the next person go up. And the next. And so on. Each one was sent through the hurricane. But although a noticeable pattern was revealed — in which an actor would start their prepared monologue and end with Jeffrey throwing it out the window — in no way did it feel repetitious. Each performer got their own personalized notes and processes, tailor-made for their specific acting styles.
One woman started with a monologue about her coming out, which, while heartfelt, is something we hear all too often as trans people. Tambor then tells her, “When I clap my hands, I want you to be in a tragedy. When I clap them again, I want you to be in a comedy.” We then witnessed her careen from fits of laughter to labored cries and back again, one after the other. Soon, her “coming out” speech turned into a story about trying to cook food for her children. “Ooohhh no, I can’t even cook!” CLAP! “But that’s okay! I’ll just order pizza!” CLAP! “Oooohhh, but I forgot the coupons!” It tore the house down. “THAT’S WHAT WE’RE AFTER!” Jeffrey exclaims after that last line. She started out with an abstract, universal speech about her coming out. “But it’s in the pizza rolls that we recognize. ‘I am you.’”
Each performer was their own unique talent. And as they went on one after the other, my heart started to sink. Oh god, my shoulder-devil thought. What are you doing here? You’re not good enough to be in this room. But then my shoulder-angel whispered words of encouragement. That’s what makes it exciting, though! You won’t know how good you are until you actually get up there. And good god did I want to get up there as soon as possible. After a couple more performers, I decide I couldn’t wait any longer. I raise my hand and “take up the space” as Jeffrey would later teach us. He finally calls up on me and I’m now onstage.
Immediately, I make the wrong move. I’m so desperate to please the teacher and prove myself that I throw out my initial written monologue and just wing it, trying to stay one step ahead of him. Same speech, but with different words and in a different order. I recount my experience of remaining in the closet. I describe my changing routine. How all the confidence and bliss I feel as a girl has to be shed on a regular basis through this act of changing. I recall the time when a man on the street thought I was a prostitute and tried to rape me when I refused his advances. How I had to go back home after the fact and pretend everything was normal and alright to my parents, burying the trauma I just experienced. How alone I was. So, so alone.
It was fucking miserable. Jeffrey and the audience noticed that immediately. So naturally, his first bit of advice was “Can you do it… funny?” Well, there’s not much to laugh about there. “No, no, like… did you see Inside Out? Like Joy played by, uh… Amy Poehler! That’s it! Love her. Yeah, be like Joy!”
I’ve experienced this exact exchange countless times: from parents, friends, therapy, what have you. I’d always focus on the worst in a given situation, and I’d always be told to “Just stay positive! You can’t accomplish anything in a sour mood!” Ugh. It’s easy to dismiss, especially when you’re in a perpetually foul mood like I am. But there’s a difference between being told to stay positive and being forced to actually act on it. And being there on that stage only made it more necessary.
So… I start. And just like that, something clicks. My posture changes as I lean out of my chair to talk directly to the audience. I smile as bright as I could. “Aww, Carol!” I say in my best Amy Poehler impression. “Remember when you were writing, and it was the best feeling in the world? Because you were creating something beautiful! Something unique and amazing and so completely you! Remember how good you felt! Don’t you miss that??”
It was better. But the story still hadn’t changed. I was still focusing on the negatives. So I was told to “stand up and move around” and “No! Just be like Joy! Remember Joy?” I did remember. I remembered how she constantly remained optimistic in the face of doom and despair. I stood up and started moving around, got myself energetic. Focus on the positives, I kept telling myself. Focus on the positives.
I started over: “Sooo that guy just tried to rape you… But that’s okay! Because we’re gonna bundle all those sad feelings up and we’re gonna bake a cake! A big, biiig cake!” And I was doing just that. Taking all the bad and making a big beautiful cake out of it. I felt so light and free that I started dancing while saying my piece. Dancing. Really. Twirling and skipping and everything. At a certain point I wasn’t performing happiness anymore. I was actually happy to be there, to still be alive and sharing that life on the stage.
It wasn’t perfect, obviously, but it was better. It felt better. He could tell right away, “You don’t connect with people often, do you?” he asks, or something like that. That’s right, I told him. So he asks me to connect with him. To feel his face and describe it. And I did. I clasped my hands on his cheeks and rubbed the contours of his skin, the wrinkles, the glasses.
This was by far the strangest part for me, stranger than dancing on stage and baking a cake out of all my bad feelings. I was touching a man who I felt I already had a relationship with thanks to television. Here was a man who made me laugh the hardest I’ve ever laughed on Arrested Development. A man who equal parts moved and frustrated me when I saw him play trans as Maura Pfefferman. My thoughts and feelings on him could not have been more conflicted. But as I rested my hands on his cheeks, all of that melted away. At that point, he wasn’t George Sr. or Maura Pfefferman or even an actor anymore. He was just a guy. A plain, ordinary, older man. I never had a granddad, on either side of my family, but Tambor somehow reminded me of him, or at least what I imagine he would be like. Just a guy.
When I walked back to the stage, he told me to sing. Not my monologue, like the other girl. “Sing your favorite song.” After some trepidation, I sang “Heroes” by David Bowie because god dammit he’ll never die, not while I’m around! My final piece of advice: “Join a dance class. I’m serious. If you don’t do it, you’re not allowed in this class, I’m kicking you out.” He was kidding. But he also wasn’t.
The course ended, and I had the rest of the day to myself. And in that period, I felt lighter. Happier. Free-er. Damn the world, because I’m here and there’s not a fucking thing that can stop me…
And then I had to drive back home. And just like I said in my sad, depressing monologue, my happiness and confidence just shed off me and I was back to the way I was.
I didn’t want it to be that way. I wanted to keep myself in Joy mode. So I made plans to go out more often. And I thankfully had a busy week ahead of me anyway. I had my first appointment with my new therapist after the old one left. I looked into dance classes offered at my university. I went out shopping and treated myself to some new clothes. I even had my first trans healthcare appointment, doing blood work and other tests for in case I ever wanted to start HRT. I was even given an official-looking sheet detailing physical changes to expect when starting hormones.
Things were good. Until they weren’t. Again.
Conveniently timed with when I was supposed to try out those dance classes, I got a call from the Center saying my dad’s been asking about payments I made for therapy. I panicked. There’s no way he could know, right? I was so careful. Unless… did I leave one of those HRT forms out in my room? Did he find it? Oh fuck, oh shit, is this really happening?
Long story short: it was a misunderstanding. He knew I was going to the Center, but my trans status was not disclosed, nor was he suspecting it at all. But I still reverted back into who I was before: scared, shy, drained of all the confidence I gained last Saturday. I didn’t even make it to the dance class. I almost didn’t make it to work.
When I came back to the Plaza for the second week of the course, everyone could tell something was wrong. I just straight-up told one girl about what happened and her response struck me in how matter-of-fact it was: “Well you might as well come out with it now. Keep the ball in your court.”
It stuck with me the entire day. Of course. Why didn’t I think of it that way. I want to be the one who has power over this decision. This was also close to when Lilly Wachowski was threatened with being outed by the Daily Mail. Even though she was dealt a shitty hand, she managed to turn it around and make the deal herself. I wanted to have that power too.
The rest of the day was filled with more of these slices of encouragement, as I watched Jeffrey work with a multitude of talented trans performers. There was one, a trans man of color, whose monologue was about revealing a giant secret to his girlfriend, who he referred to as “Cathy”. Like most of us, he was too busy being performative. Jeffrey tells him that he needs to say it like he’s saying it to this Cathy, instead of to the audience or to the teacher. It’s then that we reach a breakthrough: he can’t. Because he’s still too afraid to actually tell Cathy. Oh, how I felt his trepidation. After several tries of unlearning his deflective, detached process, we witnessed this man gather up the courage to just spill the beans to “Cathy”. His performance had definitely improved, but I started wondering whether this was even an acting class at all, and not just the greatest therapy ever concocted. Furthermore: I wondered whether I was in this class for a reason.
Another woman comes up. She’s perfect. She’s the only actress that makes Jeffrey go “I can’t help you. You’ve already got it. So what can I do for you?” She tells him she’s just too nervous to actually put herself out there, let alone go to an audition. At this point, Jeffrey says the line that nailed it for me better than anyone ever has: “We always get it wrong. Courage doesn’t produce action. Action produces courage.” Good god, those words. It was a bumper-sticker phrase, to be sure, but to see that advice actually enacted, watching this woman actually create a performance that instilled within her that very courage… that was the thing that rewired my brain and shook my nerves.
I made the decision then and there. During lunch break, I went up to Jeffrey to tell him that I want to — no, I need to come out to my parents tonight, as soon as I get back home. His eyes light up and he lets out a warm smile. But he doesn’t respond to me. Instead he goes to Zackary, his trans consultant, and tells her “This young lady’s about to make a big decision, and I think you should talk to her.” I appreciated that. I even realized the absurd irony of it all after the fact: me, the naysayer of all things Transparent, immediately going to Jeffrey Tambor for coming-out advice. Circle of life and shit.
But Zackary did help, much better than Jeffrey probably could with his limited trans experience. Say what you will about the casting of Jeffrey as Maura on Transparent (Lord knows I have), but when it came down to an actual trans issue being presented to him, he knew he wasn’t the right one to talk to. “I’m not really a transsexual. I just play one on TV.” Literally.
When I returned to class after my heart-to-heart with Zackary, Jeffrey was already different. He feels the need to talk to us before we continue. “I need to hear these stories,” he admits. He’s visibly been moved not just by my story, but all of ours. “I need to hear this. They know the red carpet version. But they don’t know this.” He so desperately wants to see us all on a screen or a stage one day. His voice is shaking as he tells us this. I would only ever hear it shake like that again when he accepted that Emmy and begged the industry to take that same advice.
The class continues. More people get to break out of their shells. More words of wisdom are spread. “You don’t have to be emotional. The emotion will come.” “Just bring the day. Bring the day. If your dog died before your take, that’s perfect! Bring it with you.” “Nerves are good! Don’t be ashamed you’re nervous. The Calm Performer is just the worst.” Each of these soundbites need not just apply to acting.
The four hours just fly by and class ends before I could catch my breath again. On the way home, I drive back to my spot and change in the car for what I hope to be the last time ever. When I return home, my parents are in their room watching Jackie Brown. Samuel L. Jackson is driving Chris Tucker to the vacant lot as I tell my parents to mute the TV because I have something to say to them.
I’ll spare you the gory details because, as mentioned earlier, coming-out stories are as old, frequent, and played-out as superhero origin stories. What made mine somewhat different, however, was how calm and ordinary it all was. Nobody cried, nobody screamed, nobody insulted each other, and while there was certainly surprise, it still felt almost expected. Inevitable, even. I merely stated the facts about who I was and how I felt. I told them about the near-rape incident. I told them about my ex-girlfriend, who I dated for a month but had to keep secret because she was trans and I was trans with her. The words just spilled out like a dam that had just broken apart. I wouldn’t even say that it felt “good”. It just happened. Because it was always supposed to happen. All I did was speed up the process.
What did feel good was when they both hugged me. Knowing that they still loved me. They were even shocked that I thought they’d hate me after the fact, only to admit to the horrible things they said about trans people in the past that contributed to this fear I had. “We still have a lot to learn,” they both said. My dad asked for reading material. I gave him my copy of Whipping Girl. I felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone, and the twist was going to be that it was all a dream, too good to be true.
It’s been 6 months since that coming out. We’ve made progress, and are continuing to make progress. Obviously it’s not perfect, but that’s okay. I recognize how lucky I am when so many of my brothers and sisters are ostracized from their families, forced to live on the streets, and faced with staggering murder rates. All I gotta deal with now is my parents learning the right terminology. So really, I don’t need it to be perfect. I’m grateful for what I currently have, and hopeful it’ll only get better.
I thought about this as I changed into my girl clothes in my own room, not having to worry about my parents finding me out for the first time. I thought about how I probably couldn’t have done this had I not attended the course. Only… That’s not entirely true. The urge to come out was always building up inside. But the class did provide a medium to express it more fully than ever.
I don’t want to shortchange my actions and chalk them up as being brought on by a cis man’s advice, even one as brilliant as Mr. Tambor. I have to own up to my accomplishments for once. No excuses, no backpedaling, no modesty, no “oh, I’m not that special” because I am. I had that courage all along. But I do have to acknowledge how Jeffrey and Zackary managed to unlock those parts of me. The same goes for all of us in that class. More importantly, cliché as it may sound, we all seemed to unlock parts of him, as he heard our stories and listened in a way that a show like Transparent (still spearheaded mostly by cis people and a mainstream giant like Amazon) doesn’t allow as often.
I announced my coming-out to the class on the final week. The whole room applauded, and later many congratulated me personally. It wasn’t just that these people were happy about how it turned out, but that these same people saw me change gradually over the course of the three weeks, and saw the effects of that change firsthand. By that point, there was an almost protective, familial energy to our group. But it was the last week. It had to end, right?
“Start a theater company,” Jeffrey told us at the beginning of the last session. It immediately clicked with the room. “I’m serious. You all have talent, and you need to tell your stories. You have to keep all this going.” There were visible light bulbs over everyone’s heads. “Just think about it,” he implored before summarizing what it was like to spend three weeks with us:
“I wanna live in this class,” he said with a smile on his face. “This, what we’re doing right here? This is groundbreaking stuff. This… This is the most important time to be an artist. If at any time we needed artists, it’s now.” There was a silence of recognition from all of us. He continued, “Do me a favor and never forget today.” I still haven’t. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I ever could.
Our final batch of performers came up and they were some of the best I’d ever seen. One trans man came up who shattered my heart into a million pieces. I dare not recount the intensely personal details he shared with us, especially upon agreeing that we were in a Safe Space. What I will say is hearing his story filled me with hope, not just for my future, but for anyone who would one day see this man on a stage or a screen because seeing him talk could change your life. Jeffrey compared his storytelling to Faulkner, that he had the power to say the unsaid we all wished we could express. He was never more right. I had never seen a performance like his, and to be in that room and witness it, in a room with no recording devices, was one of the greatest privileges I’ve ever been given. I’d heard many recollections and essays about how that very impermanence was what separated theater from all other art forms. That moment and that man was what made me a true believer. I hugged him afterwards because I had no words. I hugged him because if I didn’t have the courage to come out to my parents the prior week, I would have now thanks to him.
The class ended. Many wanted to keep the ball rolling on the theater company idea. I stayed behind. Much as I wanted to, I still had school, work, creative projects, and now my family to take care of. But when they make their first play together, I will be first in line.
Before leaving, I gave everyone goodbyes and hugs, including Jeffrey and Zackary. I thanked them both, and realized this could very likely be the last time I see them… And then I didn’t care. I got the best I could ever get from just three weekends. I was happier as a direct result of the experience. That’s what mattered in the long run. Now I just had to face the long road ahead of me, and face the unknown I had laid out for myself thanks to them.
Now it’s September, the same year. I’m currently taking electrolysis appointments in preparation for HRT. Jeffrey, meanwhile, is still using his platform to advocate for the industry to hear trans people and the stories we have to tell. And in spite of all this, plenty of other trans people still hate him for playing Maura. I can’t blame them, but I wish they could see and hear what I saw and heard those three weekends. Then again, that’s what made it special. That it was for us and us alone.
Yes, I’m aware. I’m aware that he could’ve turned down the part so an actual trans woman could’ve gotten it. But that didn’t happen. I’m aware that he performed a series of transphobic scenes in season 4 of Arrested Development. I’m also aware that my own parents have said transphobic things before I came out to them, and have learned better afterwards, that even I myself have been clueless about trans issues before I discovered myself. These are all problems, and all humans have them. But that was then. This is now. And now, Tambor seems to know his place in history. I can’t read into his mind. I don’t know whether he now harbors a regret for filling in the problematic space of being a cis man playing a trans woman. But I can tell he’s doing the best with what he’s been given. That may not be enough for some. It wasn’t enough for me, for a while. But I’ve seen the effects of what his advocacy can do, and in my opinion, we’re much better off encouraging it rather than dismissing it.
So, fine. He wants more trans people telling their stories? This is mine. My name’s Carol. I’m an awkward writer who’s way into movies and anime. I was threatened with rape on the intersection of Highland and Fountain but came out unscathed. I wrote an article on The Danish Girl for Indiewire that made a lot of cis people very mad. Some day, I’m going to write stories that make young trans kids feel better about who they are. Whether these stories appear on the screen or the page will be decided by the future, and for once in my life, I’m excited for what that future holds. I hope, someday, everyone can share that excitement too.